Obituary: Engel Lund

The concert singer Engel Lund became especially known for her ability to sing folk songs from many countries in their original language. Although she was a Danish citizen, she spent most of her life in other countries, including England.

"Gagga" Lund was born in Reykjavik on the heroic date of 14 July in the equally venerable year of 1900. She remained throughout her life a Danish citizen, but was equally tied to Denmark and Iceland, the latter being her place of birth and death. Next to these two countries her affection was given first to England, but fundamentally she was an international figure.

Her Danish father was an apothecary in Reykjavik. A few years ago there was a meeting there to celebrate the publication of the first volume of the complete works of the writer and medievalist Sigurdur Noniahl - now long dead; one of the earliest works in that book was a short sketch called "The Little Girl at the Chemist's". It was written about Gagga Lund and she was present at the ceremony to receive the first copy of the book.

At the age of 11 she and her family moved to Denmark, and it was there that she received her musical education. It must also have been there that she and others discovered her extraordinary linguistic gifts that later on made possible the most characteristic side of her career as a singer, her ability to sing folksongs from all over the world in their original languages, completely without accent. She developed that career in the years between the wars and by 1930 had already made a name for herself.

The outbreak of the Second World War brought Lund to England, where she remained throughout the war, and her many connections with this country dated essentially from those years. These connections were not only in music but also in literature which she rated just as highly. "Don't let us talk about music, it is boring," she would say many years later when she came to visit me in Reykjavik. "Let us talk about books".

In the war years Lund became widely known for her faithful participation in the lunchtime recitals at the National Gallery in London, which were initiated and directed by the pianist Dame Myra Hess. In a programme about these recitals broadcast a couple of years ago, her voice could clearly be heard. Her friendship with Peter Pears may have had its origin in a co-operation about the lunch-time concerts. Much later she recounted an amusing dialogue between the two: "I love you dearly, Peter; there is only one thing about you that I don't like and that is your voice." "Well, Gagga, that is just about the way I feel about you."

She also gave graciously of her voice to many other charities including help to refugees from Germany and other European countries; this brought her in close contact with Professor Gilbert Murray, the eminent Greek scholar, and they worked together to aid refugees from Nazism.

After the war she travelled in Europe, America and Australia and continued her career as a travelling singer of folksongs. She could speak 20 languages fluently, and her linguistic talent was so great that when a good friend of hers, the English phonetist Daniel Jones, asked her to give a concert at an international conference on phonetics, and invited the delegates to guess which country she came from, each was convinced it was his own.

When in the Sixties she felt like retiring, Lund had to choose between Denmark and Iceland and she chose Iceland, the place of her childhood. Here she was received with open arms; she was given a professorship for life in singing and vocal development at the Musical High School at Reykjavik and she was made a Knight of the Icelandic Falcon, the Icelandic national order. The rest of her life she lived - with many excursions to Denmark - in Iceland and she was happy with her choice. It is not often that Danes choose Iceland for their retirement and it is understandable that the Icelanders took her to their hearts and treated her as an honorary Icelandic citizen or even perhaps an Icelandic princess.

She was a large woman in all respects and had a corresponding voice. She liked a good glass of red wine, or two or three. She had opinions about most things, which were mostly sound, and liked to express them. Once when she was in her eighties I rang her up to invite her to a luncheon to meet Iris Murdoch. She hesitated a moment, no doubt to consult her diary and said: "Wednesday? No, I shall be teaching all day. But don't worry; I have read all her books, and I don't like them."


Engel "Gagga" Lund, singer and teacher: born Reykjavik, Iceland 14 July 1900; died Reykjavik 15 June 1996.